We need protest art precisely because it makes us uncomfortable, says Dipsikha Thakur.
In 1986, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco had this to say about Disneyland: “An allegory of the consumer society, a place of absolute iconism, Disneyland is also a place of total passivity.”
In the same essay, he discussed at length how, in attempting to create a likeness to reality that exceeded reality itself by mechanically perfecting every aspect of it, Disneyland manufactures a hyperreal world of pure consumption and no thought. Now, almost three decades later, his words seem to have been picked up and brought to flesh in Banksy’s new exhibition, Dismaland.
Dismaland, whose name and logo are more than a nod to Disneyland, has been described variously as an anarchist statement, a mystery, and even an elaborate act of trolling, according to one visitor who could not buy a ticket last weekend. And speaking of tickets, while part of the Disneyland experience is the exorbitant prices, a ticket to Banksy’s project costs only £3. If it was not apparent from the aesthetic that Dismaland is not for profit, this drives the point home.
Dismaland, whose name and logo are more than a nod to Disneyland, has been described variously as an anarchist statement, a mystery, and even an elaborate act of trolling.
But what is Dismaland for? Banksy’s previous work, mainly his graffiti, has been intensely political, and held together by his refusal to be more than a name to anyone other than a small group of people who get to work with him directly. This is significant, because the word ‘Disneyland’ has passed into that particular sphere of public consciousness where it is a catchword, a trigger, if you will, of all the fantasies of a good life. It is at the same time an empire and a mythology. After all, it is not Mickeyland or Donaldland. Not even Cartoonland. It is instead a land invented, maintained and propagated under the name of its founder: Walt Disney.
Why is this profusion of naming important? Because, for one thing, Disney became synonymous with America a long time back: In 1959, four years after the park in California was founded, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev requested a visit to Hollywood and Disneyland as part of his experience of America. Interestingly, he was barred from Disneyland, but not from a tour of Hollywood. The cultural sanctity and protectiveness around this corporation had begun in Disney’s lifetime itself.
The second reason why the name of Disneyland is important is because it shows the contrast between Disney and his current critic.
Banksy’s graffiti is vulnerable to everything—from demolitions to bad weather—their very vulnerability is what lends them credence as art.
Disney products are exactly that: they are merchandise to be bought because they are indispensable to the idea of fun. And one must have fun. That’s what good consumers do. They have fun and they are loyal to brands. Banksy’s graffiti, on other hand, is vulnerable to everything—from demolitions to bad weather—their very vulnerability is what lends them credence as art. They are all temporary; their very existence relative to the place and issue that brought them into existence. It is extremely hard to consume or assimilate them in any sense. In fact, some of his most arresting work is on the West Bank Barrier in Gaza. Try that for tourism!
That said, Banksy’s explicit and militant anonymity is no less a mythology. However, it is mythology deployed for a very specific purpose: that of intervention. Banksy’s work seamlessly combines activism and art. And as an activist without a face, he is less at risk of both harassment as well as personality cults.
In the case of Dismaland, the stakes are slightly different: it is a collaborative project, and Banksy’s anonymity also makes way for the contributing artists to occupy the space. Of course, anonymity is also a protection against the security state.
Throughout the world, art is being used to agitate against oppression and apathy, and the artists are increasingly in danger of persecution, harassment and incarceration.
Throughout the world, art is being used to agitate against oppression and apathy, and the artists are increasingly in danger of persecution, harassment and incarceration. Other artists who are less well-known than Banksy and more open about their identity continually face persecution, incarceration and harassment.
To take a prominent example, Ai Weiwei’s 1995 critique of capitalism—a Han Jar painted over with the Coca Cola logo—is inseparable from the rest of his work, which includes the ‘@Large’ exhibit in Alcatraz. Like Banksy, Weiwei protests against both the tyranny of the multinational corporation that increasingly monopolises everything and the State that allows it to do so, even as it pretends to be its regulator.
Weiwei has paid an exorbitant price for his unrepentant visibility. He was in the news in July when he managed to get his passport back from the Beijing authorities after six years. But that was not all. Right after this, his visa application to the UK was denied on the grounds of undeclared conviction in China (a false one, since he was detained but never convicted). Though the UK government backtracked once the famous and powerful sympathisers of Weiwei raised their voices against this, it nevertheless brings to attention the kind of risk, and indeed exclusion a less famous artist would have to endure in a situation like this.
As always, nothing is unproblematic, least of all Instagram.
Like Banksy, Weiwei deploys novel platforms and methods of protests. He began ‘With Flowers’ in 2013, a project best described in his own words: “Since 30 November 2013, every morning I am putting a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside the front door of the No. 258, Caochangdi studio until I win back the right to travel.”
Six hundred days later, he got his passport back. During his period of confinement in China, Weiwei also began to use Instagram to keep himself alive in public consciousness. His account currently has 134,000 followers, and eleven weeks back. the photo of his passport got more than eleven thousand likes.
But as always, nothing is unproblematic, least of all Instagram.
If protest art is a wave across the art world right now, then so is censorship and suppression. Toronto-based poet and artist Rupi Kaur recently took the Internet by storm when her menstruating selfie was deleted by Instagram. And while this app has long been selectively conservative about what it allows to be published (it has also banned nipples for no explicable reason), this time the company was forced to issue an apology to Kaur after she shared Instagram’s removal message to her and amassed huge support from her followers.
Like Weiwei, she has refused a neat compartmentalisation of art and activism; instead the two have meshed into a statement that refuses any easy categorization.
Another feminist who has incurred wrath for her art is Atena Farghadani. Her story really testifies to art’s ability to put the powerful on the defensive. It is a shame that it has not received as much attention as Banksy or Weiwei; it certainly deserves our time and solidarity as an audience much more the other two.
It is difficult not to wonder if part of the reason that Atena is seldom discussed is that we still tend to see the written word as a more legitimate method of protest.
Farghadani is an Iranian woman who was arrested in August 2014 for her cartoon that mocked the drafting of a law that would restrict access of birth control in Iran. Upon her release in December, she made a short video reporting the conditions of the prison, which led to a re-arrest. Since then she has been kept in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison in Teheran. In February of this year, she suffered a heart attack.
And while her case has been picked up by Amnesty International, it has not received a third of the kind of press that has gone to Raif Badawi, another blogger-activist facing horror from a different government for his ideas. This is, of course, not to trivialise the gravity of that situation, not for a moment, nor to suggest that the attention accorded to him is undeserved. Rather, the disparity points to our own biases and beliefs as the consumer-reader-supporter of art. It is difficult not to wonder if part of the reason that Atena is seldom discussed is that we still tend to see the written word as a more legitimate method of protest.
It is important to note here that we have already seen a milder form of this in India. In 2012, Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested by the West Bengal government for a cartoon lampooning Mamata Banerjee. We are very fortunate that the law that was used to arrest him—Section 66(A) of the IT Act—no longer exists, thanks to the efforts of legal activists. But it serves as a reminder that the intersection between art and activism is a brave and a vulnerable position to occupy throughout the world.
There are a few things to take away from the interaction no matter where each of us lives or whether we are even going to step into a Disney theme park. Since 1955, Disneyland has expanded from its California base to include Paris and now Hong Kong: it is very much a corporation, and it rides on the fetish for all things American, its appeal no different from what drives the sales of McDonalds and Burger King. In Faith in Fakes, while commenting on the hyperrealism of Disneyland, Eco had commented that the only thing that is false in a space like Disneyland is our will to consume.
We do not need Disneyland, but we need Dismaland. We need the Coca Cola vase. We need Rupi Kaur’s selfie and we need Farghadani’s cartoon. We need them because they are unpleasant, because they provide no comfort, and they force us to question exactly what it is that we normally hold dear about art. Is it mere aesthetic pleasure? Is it a fetish for that which is already hallowed and confers, in a way, the same status that being able to afford Disneyland does? Is it the same sense of ‘fun’? And most importantly, who are we allowed to criticise before things get nasty?
Resistance art is valuable because it cannot ever be a single-issue. Just as Kaur’s selfie exposed how a self-proclaimed and free (in both the financial and political senses) photo-sharing app has misogyny and conservatism woven into its success, Banksy’s anonymity has also exposed the premium on the brand and prestige that turns art into no less of a market than others.
We do not need Disneyland, but we need Dismaland. We need the Coca Cola vase. We need Rupi Kaur’s selfie and we need Farghadani’s cartoon.
But of course, the Dismaland exhibition being synonymous with Banksy is itself a problem, as it is a collaborative project. It features many other brilliant, less famous artists. One particular person you should definitely check out Jani Leinonen. This Helsinki-based artist has used everything from placards used by homeless people to electric cords to critique consumerism. In 2011 he was imprisoned when he stole a statue from a McDonald’s restaurant and staged a beheading of the figure. Like Dismaland, Leinonen’s art is often not for profit and closely engages with existing popular things in order to question their purpose. When asked about the nature of his art he said, “I use the market’s own detournement and appropriation—like strategies to reveal the media’s and markets’ unspoken assumptions on right and wrong, suitable and unsuitable, and good and evil.”
No wonder he is part of Dismaland then.